Leap Day Traditions Across Time and Cultures

By Pacific College - February 29, 2016
Leap Day Traditions Across Time and Cultures

Have you ever wondered why we add one day to February every four years? It turns out that the history of leap year is a long and very complex one, having much to do with the inexact number of whole days it takes our Earth to complete a full orbit around the Sun: 365.2422 days, more or less.

Julius Caesar got his astronomer, Sosigenes, involved. Pope Gregory XIII and his astronomers jumped in, and Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus played his part. Here’s a story from the BBC that nicely lays out the chronology, but we wanted to explore some of the most interesting and “eccentric” Leap Day traditions and facts to celebrate this upcoming Leap Day 2016.

Women ask their men to say, “I do”

A very public proposal turned out well for Genevieve and her guy on Leap Day 2012. She popped the question on Royal Mile in Edinburgh while a band played, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” This custom dates back to an old Irish legend that finds 5th century St. Brigid of Kildare imploring St. Patrick to allow women to propose to men to keep things in balance. St. Brigid had an intuitive understanding of Oriental medicine, it seems. St. Patrick decreed that this should be allowed on the last day of the shortest month every four years, and the tradition of women proposing to men on Leap Day – or in Leap Years – was born.

If men dared to say “I don’t…”

Irish monks brought the leap year proposal tradition to Scotland. One legend claims that around 1288, Queen Margaret of Scotland decreed women should don a red petticoat while popping the question. Margaret apparently understood the fiery passion symbolized by the color red. While decreeing it law, she also established fines for men who declined the marriage offer. The penalty could require that the man kiss the rejected woman, or gift her a silk gown or 12 pairs of gloves.

Happy Leap Day birthday to you

If you were born on February 29, you are a “leaper” or “leapling.” The chances of this are about one in 1,461, and you qualify for membership in The Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies.

Other fascinating Leap Day facts

  • In 1504 while stranded in the West Indies, Christopher Columbus consulted his almanac to learn that February 29th would bring a lunar eclipse. He used this to manipulate the uncooperative indigenous population into furnishing him with provisions, lest they incur the wrath of God, signified by a red moon.
  • The first three arrest warrants were issued in the Salem witchcraft trials in Massachusetts on February 29, 1692.
  • In most U.S. states, the U.K., and Hong Kong, “leaplings” legally reach drinking and smoking age and other milestones on March 1st. New Zealand, China, and Taiwan recognize February 28th as the legal birthday.

Do something fun and memorable on Leap Day 2016, but follow St. Brigid’s lead, and strive for balance!


http://www.timeanddate.com/date/leap-day-february-29.html http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17203353 http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/leap-year-february-29th-is-when-women-can-ask-men-to-marry-them-140128503-237431711.html http://www.11points.com/Misc/11_Random_Facts_About_Leap_Day

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